A Connecticut teenager at the center of a long-running custody dispute will be transferred next week to a residential treatment center in her home state, the top Massachusetts human services official announced Monday, in an effort to find a resolution to the high-profile controversy.
Health and Human Services Secretary John Polanowicz said he hopes the move will lead to the return of Justina Pelletier to her parents’ care, possibly as early as next month, and defuse tensions that have dominated the case, which arose from a diagnostic disagreement between two Boston hospitals in February 2013. It has since attracted national attention over issues of medical child abuse and parental rights.
“This is an important step forward in an extremely complex situation,” Polanowicz said in a letter to House minority leader Brad Jones, who has sought to have the teenager returned to Connecticut. “We all want Justina to return home soon, and this plan provides a road map to make that happen.”
It is rare for the human services secretary to intervene in a child custody case handled by the Department of Children and Families, which he oversees. But Polanowicz has met in recent weeks with a representative of the family, and he met Monday with Justina’s parents.
Polanowicz said after the meeting that he believes that Justina’s transfer to the Connecticut facility is the “fastest mechanism to ultimately get Justina home.”
But the parents, Lou and Linda Pelletier, expressed anger Monday that their 15-year-old daughter was being sent to the JRI Susan Wayne Center for Excellence in Thompson, Conn., saying that they want Justina returned home.
The father, speaking to reporters in front of the State House, called the transfer decision “another slap in the face, a kick in the stomach.”
He also suggested that, if she were placed in any facility, it should be one focused on rehabilitation services.
“We’re not going to let her go back into harm’s way,” said Lou Pelletier. “She’s not going to a behavioral, psychiatric facility again. She’s been tortured enough. It’s going to end.”
The move, however, will get Justina closer to home, making it easier for her parents to visit. Thompson is about 55 miles from the Pelletiers’ home in West Hartford, Conn. Justina has been staying for the past several months at Wayside Youth and Family Support Network in Framingham.
The Department of Children and Families retains permanent legal custody of Justina, and a juvenile court judge, who has already been highly critical of the parents’ behavior, holds the power to review legal custody. The next hearing would be next month at the earliest. The state’s child-protection agency also has the option of placing Justina temporarily at her home, while it retains custody.
Polanowicz’s letter to Jones states that, for the parents to win state support for returning their daughter to them, they must meet some conditions, including following Tufts Medical Center’s care plan for Justina, participating in family therapy, and meeting with DCF to review their child’s progress.
The parents’ comments on Monday were a contrast to what they said last year when DCF proposed placing Justina in a residential facility in New Britain, Conn., which had medical and psychiatric services. They opposed that plan and threatened to sue, but they later warmed to the place after visiting it. The facility ultimately retracted its offer, saying it was fearful of protracted litigation. Since that time, DCF has had difficulty recruiting treatment facilities willing to accept Justina, because the facilities fear being pulled into legal complications and unwanted attention, say several people familiar with the case.
It is unclear when the 27-bed center in Thompson, Conn., was asked to accept Justina. But it has deep ties to Massachusetts. JRI, which stands for Justice Resource Institute, is one of the largest human services providers in Massachusetts, performing extensive work for DCF. The company was paid $46.4 million by the state in fiscal 2014, according to the state’s online database.
JRI’s spokesman, David Ball, said the nonprofit organization operates programs across the Northeast that serve “children and adults with complex behavioral and emotional challenges,” as well as individuals with medical needs.
The family’s advisor over the past few months, the Rev. Patrick Mahoney, who helped negotiate the meetings with Polanowicz, said the Pelletiers have no power to stop the state from moving Justina to the Connecticut treatment center.
“If DCF, by the full brunt of their power, want to move Justina to this behavioral unit in Connecticut, then they can do that,” said Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition in Washington, D.C., one of a number of advocacy groups that have become involved in defending the Pelletiers.
Justina’s parents say their daughter suffers from mitochondrial disorder, a rare genetic illness that can cause severe fatigue and intestinal issues. A physician at Tufts Medical Center had given Justina a working diagnosis of this disorder and treated her accordingly.
But doctors at Boston Children’s Hospital, after seeing Justina in the emergency room in February 2013, concluded that her difficulty walking and intestinal problems were mostly related to psychological issues. They filed allegations of suspected medical child abuse with authorities, leading to an investigation by the Department of Children and Families. Justina remained at the hospital for nearly a year, most of the time in a psychiatric ward.
On March 25, a juvenile court judge supported the Children’s Hospital team’s view of Justina’s psychological issues, and rebuked the parents for their failure to cooperate with DCF’s efforts to help treat their daughter’s complex issues.